President Park Geun-hye’s Liberation Day speech on Aug. 15 included proposals to North Korea for environmental, infrastructure and cultural cooperation in line with her trustpolitik policy ― building relations with the North based on trust ― in a reiteration of her inauguration speech in February 2013.
While the Liberation Day speech contained neither groundbreaking declarations nor grand proposals regarding North Korea, as was usually the practice in previous administrations, it did offer some concrete proposals that should be acceptable to the North and that can be readily implemented.
The proposed opening of a channel for environmental cooperation and joint management of the rivers and forests of the Korean Peninsula are practical measures that would benefit both the South and the North. Humanitarian assistance and cooperation for infrastructure building in the North are aimed at improving the living conditions of North Koreans. Joint excavations and preservations of cultural assets also have little to do with politics.
The environmental, infrastructure and cultural cooperation that Park proposed does not entail great political risks for Pyongyang. They are fairly uncontroversial projects that should not encounter opposition in either the South or the North. In fact, cooperation in managing the environment, building infrastructure and cultural preservation will facilitate exchanges at the civilian level and thus contribute to trust-building that is vital to reconciliation between the two Koreas.
Indeed, Park’s latest address aims to expand exchanges at the civilian level even as Seoul and Pyongyang are at a deadlock over North Korea‘s continued nuclear development.
Park extended an invitation to the North to participate in the 12th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity to be held in Pyeongchang in October. North Korea is a party to the convention, and participation in such an international meeting is a way to keep the isolated country engaged at a global level. The call for joint preparation for cultural projects to commemorate the 70th anniversary of liberation from Japanese colonial rule next year is an offer that Pyongyang should find easy to accept.
Park’s Dresden Declaration in March was a plan of action to support the trustpolitik policy she announced the previous year. The Liberation Day anniversary speech went a step further by making concrete proposals.
These proposals are not bold, giant steps toward reunification. Rather, they are small but practical steps toward reconciliation that can continue inter-Korean engagement at a civilian level when the relations between the two states are at a standstill.